In New Atheism: The Godlessness that Failed, Scott Alexander explains how New Atheism was a much bigger phenomenon than younger people realize, and theorizes about its demise. Scott’s hypothesis is that New Atheism seamlessly transitioned into the social justice movement (while leaving the remaining atheist movement behind with all the anti-social-justice folks). I don’t entirely agree, but I’ve advocated similar theories myself.
But as much as I enjoy theorizing about the demise of New Atheism, I’d like to highlight a point Scott makes in his conclusion:
I’ve lost the exact quote, but a famous historian once said that we learn history to keep us from taking the present too seriously. This isn’t to say the problems of the present aren’t serious. Just that history helps us avoid getting too dazzled by current trends, or too swept away by any particular narrative.
The “current trend”, the current paradigm of the culture wars, is social justice. As a former atheist activist, and current social justice activist, I am perpetually concerned that social justice will crash and burn the same way atheism did. I mean, isn’t it practically guaranteed? Do you really think that 10-20 years down the road, people will be concerned about the same things?
Here’s how I expect it to go. Some new issue will appear that divides social justice activists. Initially it will seem like just another internal argument like we have all the time, but it will prove persistent, and fatal. Most people get fed up and leave, and some will switch to the next big thing.
And then, the younger generation will start talking about social justice like it was always ridiculous. They’ll have little understanding of how much they owe to social justice. They’ll be keenly aware of the excesses of the movement. They’ll believe in all the negative stereotypes of us–screeching blue-haired women who insist that nobody is allowed to speak unless they have a long list of labels. Social justice will continue to be an important issue, but hardly anyone will recognize it or fight for it, because it’s become a bad word.
This is why I think it’s so important to defend the atheist movement. It’s true, the atheist movement had some excesses–so many excesses. But some of the things that people say about atheists these days are basically stereotypes that we used to fight all the time. And religion may not be the root of all evil, and it never was, but it is at least a factor, and one that social justice activists ought to pay more attention to.
This is all speculative fiction at this point, but I find myself always guessing at what will play each of the parts. What will be the next big issue? Will it be, as Scott speculates, class? Will it have something to do with TERFism and its descendants? Will it relate to the 2020 US election, and Brexit? Will it be something else entirely? And what will people of the future see as the excesses of social justice? The abundance of identity labels? The false dichotomy of oppressor vs oppressed? Will the “excess” be something bullshit like “cancel culture“?
Or maybe none of this will come to pass. One can always hope that social justice dies of old age, instead of running off a cliff. I can’t predict the future.
I hope this explains my mindset in approaching social justice, why I follow the principles of moderation and independent thought.